We recently dived into the short but glorious history of the Prince Motor Company, and told the story of these upmarket Japanese saloons from the fifties and sixties. There’s more though. We promised to return for a look at their motorsport history too. It’s even shorter, but arguably also even more glorious and full of promise…
In case you missed out on the article on the road cars three weeks ago, or if you just want to revisit it, here’s a link for you: The Lost Prince of the Far East
Prince Motor Company’s motorsport history starts off rather abruptly in May 1964 with their relatively new second-generation Prince Skyline. Development had been happening at a furious pace within Prince and with great success too – by the early- to mid-sixties their confidence was through the roof. On that high, Chief of Engineering, Shinichiro Sakurai, decided he wanted to do something a little different for the 1964 second running of the Japan Grand Prix at the Suzuka Circuit.
It was a given that Prince was going to enter their new 4-cylinder Skyline 1500 in the T-V class, against similar saloons like the Toyota Corona RT40. But Sakurai had a plan – he was aiming higher! He wanted to take on the more prestigious GT-II class as well, only there was the minor detail that he lacked a suitable car to do so.
Hastily the nose of a Skyline was extended a rather significant 20cm (8 inches) between the front axle and the front bulkhead, as to make space for the much longer 6-cylinder G7 SOHC engine launched in the big brother Gloria Super 6 only a year and a half earlier – thus creating the Prince Skyline 2000GT. Equipped with triple Weber 40 DCOE carburettors and at full race spec, rumour has it that the 2-litre straight-6 was pumping out in the region of 165hp. Drive was through a 5-speed dogleg gearbox – and as if the dogleg pattern isn’t weird enough, the whole pattern was also mirrored so that first gear slotted in at top right, and you then moved up through the gears as you came left across the gate. At the rear a limited-slip differential took care of traction. There is some debate as to whether Prince actually managed to build the required 100 cars for homologation before the 1964 Japan Grand Prix, but at least in theory if nothing else, that’s how many Prince produced of the first batch, known by the chassis code S54-I.
Later productionalised road versions where dubbed the Skyline 2000GT-A and the Skyline 2000GT-B, respectively with chassis codes S54A-II and S54B-II. You will need to return to the earlier article on the Prince road cars if you require more information about these versions.
Regardless – whether totally legit or not – JAF granted Prince homologation just in time for the Japan Grand Prix, and they subsequently lined up with no less than seven Skyline 2000GTs. Up against a whole hoard of Datsun Fairlady SP310s, some Isuzu Bellett 1600GTs, several MGBs, a single Triumph TR4, a Lotus Elan and a Lotus Elite, most were convinced that Prince would dominate the race with their new sports saloon. However, a very late entry by a Porsche 904 GTS was to spoil their ambitions.
One thoroughly unconfirmed rumour suggests that Toyota might have wanted to prevent Prince from widespread national fame and publicity. It is possible that they at very short notice proceeded to fund the purchase of the Porsche 904 GTS for Sokichi Shikiba (long-time Toyota-protégé and owner of Japanese auto accessories company Racing Mate) in order for him to prevent Prince from stealing the show. Clearly, a saloon car – even a homologation saloon car – from the up-and-coming Japanese car industry would never stand a chance against a fully-fledged race car from a very well established European sports car manufacturer. However, Shikiba had an unfortunate off during practice the day before the race. The Porsches damaged front end was straightened out and put back together, but a lack of spares meant that the steering was still somewhat deranged and Shikiba struggled with the handling. Suddenly, the playing field was even again as the seven Skylines hounded the crippled Porsche come raceday. The Porsche was out in the lead, but especially Tetsu Ikuzawa in the white Skyline with red stripes and wearing number 41 continually hassled the German race car. Not far behind in third was the blue Skyline of Yoshikazu Sunako in the number 39.
At one point in the race, Ikuzawa managed to overtake the Porsche and took the lead. Every Japanese car enthusiast at Suzuka Circuit and all around the country rose to their feet with joy and amazement! Ikuzawa only managed to hold that lead very briefly before the Porsche was back in front – but it was enough to create a legend. Eventually Ikuzawa fell back to third as Sunako in the blue number 39 took up the chase. They crossed the line with the Porsche 904 GTS in first, and Prince Skylines taking the following places from second right through to sixth, with the blue number 39 of Sunako in second and the white and red number 41 of Ikuzawa in third. If this had indeed been an evil plot of Toyota’s, it had certainly backfired severely on them. Yes, the Porsche might have won the race, but the moral victory went to Prince and the publicity and acknowledgement they gained from it was off the scales. They had after all accomplished something which no Japanese enthusiast had ever dreamed possible. No one took particular notice that the smaller Skyline 1500s took first through to seventh place in the T-V race, but what the Skyline 2000GT had accomplished up against the Porsche in the GT-II race put real pride into Prince as a company and even all of Japan as a country.
Back in 2012, Nissan (with which Prince of course merged in 1966) produced a video full of fabulously grainy period video footage from the 1964 Japan Grand Prix, and not least an endearing interview with the elderly but ever enthusiastic Yoshikazu Sunako telling tales of yesteryear. It’s well worth a watch…
As is also mentioned briefly in that video, their achievements at Suzuka in 1964 spurred them on to take their motorsport aspirations to the next level. So on a cocktail of motivation from having achieved so much with the Skyline 2000GT and vengeance for being robbed of victory in the GT-II class, Prince chief engineer and head of their motorsport division, Shinichiro Sakurai, set about developing a brand new purpose-built race car.
He had seen with his own eyes how effective the mid-engined layout of the Porsche 904 GTS was, and quickly decided that this was exactly what they needed if they were to be truly competitive. Of course, Prince Motor Company had no experience with this type of chassis, and as time was a deciding element they bought a secondhand Brabham BT8 from the UK. Once in Japan they took the mid-engined tubular spaceframe chassis and modified it to suit their purpose. Then they skinned it with a sleek and compact aluminium body of their own design – not entirely different from the beautiful Porsche 904 GTS, but also with a certain resemblance to the excellent Ferrari 250LM, at least if you squint your eyes a little.
As for the engine, contrary to popular belief, Prince did not just continue development of their 2-litre straight-6 SOHC G-7 engine used in the Skyline. Instead they started from scratch with a newly designed block which is not interchangeable with the G-7, and created a new 2-litre engine which was then treated to a deceptively narrow twincam head with no less than 4 valves pr. cylinder. They then let this new 24-valve DOHC engine breath through a trio of rare 42 DCOE Weber carburettors. This new GR-8 engine was also dry sumped and then mated to a 5-speed Hewland gearbox. They managed to coax out an impressive 200hp at a screaming 8000 rpm from the normally-aspirated 2-litre, all of which resulted it a rather rapid race car, thanks also to the low weight of 615 kg (1355 lbs).
Amazingly, they managed to construct their purpose-built race car in less than a year, and had it all ready for the next Japan Grand Prix in May 1965 – which was then disappointingly cancelled. All dressed up but nowhere to go! But they weren’t about to let that knock them out – the all new Prince R380 was going places. Instead they wheeled the R380 out onto Yatabe test track in October 1965 to take on the world of speed records. With Yukio Sugita behind the wheel they duly broke six different E-class land speed records.
The following year, in May 1966, the third Japan Grand Prix finally took place, but this time at the newly constructed Fuji Speedway. In the meantime, Prince had tweaked their R380 – now officially called the R380A-I – with slightly wider rubber and the power output was now quoted as above 200hp. They had also assembled a few more cars and entered four Prince R380s into the GP-II class for the Japan Grand Prix. Despite stiff competition from a brand new Porsche 906, a Shelby Daytona Coupé, some Jaguar E-types and not least another new local hero in the form of Toyota’s beautiful 2000GT, this time Prince managed to pull it off. Yoshikazu Sunako – famous from his second place in the Skyline two years earlier – crossed the line in first place behind the wheel of the dark red R380 wearing number 11, with his teammate Hideo Oishi following him into second onboard the blue R380 wearing number 10. Prince Motor Company won the Japan Grand Prix – the most prestigious home event – and even beat Porsche this time around.
Or course, any Prince enthusiast – or anyone who’s read our first article on the history of the Prince Motor Company – will know that in August 1966,only a few months after that monumental victory, Prince was absorbed into the Nissan Motor Company through all the turmoil of the merger. While this was to be the beginning of the end for the Prince marque, Nissan on the other hand were delighted to suddenly have access to a fully established race team with both knowledge and experience. The sudden demise of Prince was (and is) a sad one, but in Nissan’s defense, at least they made the most of it.
Now working under the Nissan banner, Shinichiro Sakurai remained Head of the Motorsport Division and continued to develop the R380 further – now dubbed the R380A-II. The triple 42 DCOE Webers were swapped out with bigger 45’s boosting power output a little further to 220hp. The Hewland gearbox was replaced by a ZF 5-speed and once again wider tyres found their way under the arches for improved traction. But the biggest changes were to the bodywork as the car was completely reskinned in order to achieve better aerodynamics. The nose cone was a bit more rounded and the whole cockpit was shaped more like a canopy with a wide wrap-around windshield similar to that seen of the new Porsche 906 and the Ferrari Dino 206S. The conventional doors were swapped out with small gullwing doors, and the abrupt rear buttresses were replaced by a long and more flowing engine cover still ending in a distinct Kammtail with those round taillights from the old Skyline. Oh, and while this was of course still very much a Prince R380, the lettering down the flanks now spelled out “Nissan”.
For the fourth Japan Grand Prix in 1967, they again entered four R380s. However, this time they were up against three Porsche 906s rather than just one, which proved a bit of a mouthful. Porsche came out victorious this time with a 906 crossing the finish line first, but with R380s still finishing strong taking both second, third, fourth and sixth place.
In some bizarre twist of irony, Nissan wanted a taste of land speed records too, and thus wheeled out the R380A-II in October 1967. Just like Prince had done two years earlier, Nissan went to Yatabe test track, only this time the Prince R380 was officially a Nissan. And this time, with Tatsu Yokoyama behind the wheel, it led to seven new land speed records – among others averaging 250.98 km/h over a one hour run.
By now, Nissan were busy developing the new R381, which was an altogether different beast with open-cockpit bodywork and initially fitted with a 5.5 liter Chevrolet V8 until they managed to fully develop the R382 with their own vicious 6.0-litre V12 DOHC pushing out a stonking 600hp. But development of the smaller and more nimble R380 continued alongside. The reworked R380A-III once again received a new nosecone and wider tyres along with improved brakes, but of greater significance was the Lucas fuel injection which took over from the trusty old Webers, and duly increased the power output to a heady 245hp at 8400 rpm.
While it was the new Nissan R381 which won the fifth Japan Grand Prix in 1968 at Fuji Speedway, the three R380A-IIIs entered in the race still managed respectable third, fourth and fifth places. The following year, two factory R380s were entered in the Chevron Paradise 6 Hour race at the Surfers Paradise International Raceway in Australia, which lead to an impressive one – two finish for the now aging race car. Still the R380 – the last real Prince to have been developed and built – continued to race with privateers for a few more years to come.
Fittingly, I’ll shall end this article with the precise words which I used in the previous article focusing on the road cars from Prince Motor Company: Just imagine what could have been, if only that merger had never happened…